Rather than have students memorize definitions and facts about a science topic such as light, an effective first-grade teacher today would have students investigate various types of objects under sunlight and flashlight. Students would collect evidence to understand how light helps them see, and they'd experiment with different materials to understand how and why shadows are made.
This shift is a result of the Next Generation Science Standards, which aim to define a uniform vision for K-12 science education across the country. Introduced in 2013, the standards move away from emphasizing scientific vocabulary and facts recorded in textbooks to using real-world phenomena to explore and explain the natural world. These phenomena engage students in a set of science and engineering practices, or SEPs. Over 40 states have adopted the Next Generation standards or some version of them.
Despite the wide adoption of these standards, the current status of elementary school science education is concerning. The nation's report card shows that many students in grades K-5 do not get quality science instruction. The situation is worse in high-poverty school districts. The majority of instructional time in elementary school grades is often dedicated to math and language arts, with science on the back burner.
As a science education researcher and a teacher educator, my goal is to help prepare the next generation of science teachers. Here are five attributes of an effective elementary school science teacher that align with the new standards.
1. Nurtures Student Curiosity
Kids are curious by nature. Science teachers should use relevant everyday events as a basis of science instruction that fosters interest and curiosity. This approach encourages students to take a more active role in figuring out how natural events work instead of being taught those lessons by an instructor.
For instance, in this video, a teacher poses an interesting query to students: How did a water puddle disappear over time? During a subsequent experiment, students used thermometers to measure the temperature of a water puddle outside at different times of the day. They used the data to make connections between temperature changes and the shrinking size of the puddle and delve into the reasoning behind it.
In this case, the teacher involved students in scientific practices and used an everyday occurrence to teach key scientific concepts such as sunlight, energy and energy transfer.
2. Encourages Scientific Thinking
Effective science teachers involve students in making sense of natural events and the science ideas underlying them. In other words, they actively engage students in wondering and figuring out science phenomena around them and how they happen. They help students develop exploratory questions and hypotheses to explain such events, and encourage them to test and refine their explanations based on scientific evidence.
For example, when a first grade classroom was learning about how day and night happen, students illustrated their own understanding of the phenomena — using a scientific practice called modeling. As they learned more and more, they kept revising their drawings. They also collected long-term data to understand the repeating patterns of day and night.
Teachers should also ensure that all students participate in making sense of science phenomena in their classrooms.
To share their ideas about a science phenomenon, students often rely on their personal experiences and native languages from their homes and communities. For instance, a student from an agricultural community might have particular knowledge about plant growth and unique local language to describe it. An effective science teacher provides opportunities to build on such native experiences and local knowledge in their science classrooms.
3. Develops Scientific Literacy
Teachers who plan lessons according to the current standards aim to develop scientifically literate young citizens who can identify, evaluate and understand scientific arguments underlying local and global issues.
They also use socioscientific issues in their instruction. Socioscientific issues are local or global phenomena that can be explained by science and signify social and political problems. For example, students might make sense of the scientific information underlying the current COVID-19 crisis and make arguments for how and why vaccination is important for their communities. Other examples of socioscientific issues are climate change, genetic engineering and pollution from oil spills.
4. Integrates Science With Other Subjects
Teaching science with an interdisciplinary approach — that is to say, using math, technology, language arts and social studies to make sense of science phenomena — can lead to rich and rigorous learning experiences.
For example, teachers can integrate math by having students create visual charts and graphs to explain their experimental or observation data. Technology integration in the form of games and simulations in science classrooms can help students picture complex science ideas. Incorporating reading and comprehension strategies in science can bolster students' ability to read critically for scientific ideas and evidence.
5. Uses Classroom Assessments to Support Student Learning
A science teacher who is interested in students' ideas will design and use classroom-based assessments that reveal students' science thinking. They do not use closed-ended assessments that require yes or no answers, textbook-style definitions or lists of scientific facts. Instead, they use open-ended, phenomenon-based assessments that give students a chance to show their understanding.
For example, a fifth grade assessment presents students with a story of an Australian ecosystem and prompts them to use modeling to explain relationships between different components of the ecosystem. Such an assessment encourages students to explain how a process happens instead of recalling information.
Effective science teachers do not evaluate students' responses for right and wrong answers. They interpret and evaluate students' scientific explanations to understand strengths and gaps in their learning and use this information to adapt future instruction.
Teachers who are prepared to implement these five evidence-based practices can potentially involve all students in their classroom in meaningful science learning.
Meenakshi Sharma is an assistant professor of science education at Mercer University.